Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts

Narratives of English Canada
Wilfrid Laurier University Press (CA)
  • 1. Auflage
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  • erschienen am 6. August 2012
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  • 252 Seiten
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978-1-55458-261-7 (ISBN)
This collection of essays studies the cultural and literary contexts of narrative texts produced in English Canada over the last forty years. It takes as its starting point the nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s, when the supposed absence or weakness of a national sense became the touchstone for official discourses on the cultural identity of the country. That type of metaphor provided the nation with the distinctive elements it was looking for and contributed to the creation of a sense of tradition that has survived to the present. In the decades following the 1970s, however, critics, artists, and writers have repeatedly questioned such a model of national identity, still fragile and in need of articulation, by reading the nation from alternative perspectives such as multiculturalism, environmentalism, (neo)regionalism, feminism, or postcolonialism. These contributors suggest that the artistic and cultural flowering Canada is experiencing at the beginning of the twenty-first century is, to a great extent, based on the dismantlement of the images constructed to represent the nation only forty years ago. Through their readings of representative primary texts, their contextual analysis, and their selected methodological tools, the authors offer a tapestry of alternative approaches to that process of dismantlement. Together, they read as an unruly Penelopiad, their unravelling readings self-consciously interrogating Canada's (lack of) ghosts.
  • Englisch
Wilfrid Laurier University
  • 2,20 MB
978-1-55458-261-7 (9781554582617)
155458261X (155458261X)
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Rewriting Tradition: Literature, History, and Changing Narratives in English Canada since the 1970s

Coral Ann Howells

Nothing begins when it begins and nothing's over when it's over, and
everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous
events. History is a construct. . Still, there are definitive moments .
-Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

To establish a context for this historical analysis of changes in literary discourse in English Canada over the past forty years, what better place to begin than with Margaret Atwood's deconstruction of the traditional image of history as an authoritative and objective account of the past? This most representative writer of the Anglo-Canadian literary establishment is responding to debates over historiography and the implications of a postmodern distrust of the "grand narratives" of history, religion, and nation (Lyotard xxiv). At the same time, The Robber Bride addresses specific issues raised by the ideological shifts that have altered the terms of debate about Canadian identity and heritage. In what has become a contested terrain, the narrative dynamics of history have changed, thus opening the way for new formulations and a restructuring of tradition. However, this relativization of the absolute authority of history does not deny its value as a "construct" (a verbal artifact and explanatory device), for history does establish "definitive moments, moments we use as references" (Robber Bride 4) in our attempts to articulate patterns of recurrence and change across time. Atwood's quotation provides the frame for my critical inquiry into reshaping the category of Canadianness since the 1970s, a period of immensely widened literary and cultural parameters and a new era of national self-consciousness. Arguably literary histories provide a series of such "definitive moments" in the nation's cultural history, representing both a story of heritage and a stock-taking in the present. At the same time, like any form of historiography, the stories they tell, as Hayden White observed, are inevitably shaped "in response to imperatives that are generally extrahistorical, ideological, aesthetic, or mythical in nature" (48). As Atwood's medieval military historian suggests with her talk of "a preface, a postscript, and a chart of simultaneous events," questions of context are crucial, for they determine not only the frame of reference for a particular history but also its theoretical assumptions and methodology, which in turn condition the choice of what materials are included as significant and what are marginalized or excluded. As every decade since the 1970s has been marked by changes in Canada's literary, cultural, and political contexts, my discussion, though it privileges literary histories as encoders of the nation's image, will offer a necessarily limited selection of these, while it will also include anthologies and seminal meta-critical texts about CanLit. Together these chart the changes over decades, as they offer new perspectives on nationalism, historiography, canon debates, gender and ethnicity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism, and globalization.

It may be noted that the most pressing challenge faced by literary historians and critics at the present time is how to situate the diversity of the contemporary Canadian literary scene (composed as it is of multiple narratives with different constructions of cultural memory, different affiliations and loyalties) in relation to four centuries of writing in Canada and to indigenous oral traditions before and after European contact. Clearly the elements of any historical narrative need to be realigned, as "emergent" discourses displace the formerly "dominant" discourse, provoking the need to take into account what is "residual" ("unsettled remains" as Sugars and Turcotte call them), using history itself to tell a different story about the relation between the present and the past.1

Thinking about the revisionist impulse in literary histories shown through their responses to shifts in national ideology and to new works produced over the past forty years, we find there is a certain correspondence between the trajectory of the Canadian texts discussed in this collection and the genre's own shape changes. This is no accident, for there are major questions to be addressed which resonate through this collection. These include such questions as: When did diasporic and Aboriginal writing become visible as distinctive components of Canadian literature, and why not earlier? When did Canadian and European critics start noticing "multicultural" writing? When did the new theoretical discourses around feminism, gender and sexuality, postmodernism, post-colonialism, multi-culturalism, and environmentalism start to make a difference to the way that Canadian literary history was being written? When did terminology change (such as the replacement of "Indian" and "Eskimo" with "Aboriginal" or "Indigenous," or the first uses of "multicultural" and "diasporic" instead of "ethnic")? When did black Canadian writing and its historical legacies become a presence in the literary canon? How has the relationship between regionalism and nationalism been theorized and transformed in a globalized context? What happened to "Wilderness," the favourite Canadian identity marker for the cultural nationalists? And when did novels with urban settings displace dominant landscape tropes? These are historical issues at the centre of ongoing debates about nation and identity and about the reconstruction of heritage narratives and literary tradition. Charting a course of simultaneous events, we can trace a shift since the late 1970s as Canadian history has gradually been reinterpreted from diverse perspectives, so that the traditional Anglo-French model of a white settler history has been replaced by a more complex scenario of origins, with multiple "foundational moments," occluded histories, and forgotten stories-all "the complicated specific facts of our cultural past" (Hutcheon and Valdés 24) which stand behind or beneath the present contexts for reading and writing Canadianness for Canadians and the rest of the world.

Frame Narratives of CanLit and Signs of Change

The frame narrative of literary histories since the 1970s often begins with Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), on which much has been written. Though not a literary history proper, this book, addressed to a popular readership, represents a "definitive moment" when the concept of a distinctive national literature was made visible to Atwood's fellow Anglo-Canadians. Knowing one's literary heritage was represented as an important national survival strategy: "To know ourselves, we must know our own literature" (Atwood, Survival 17). Emblematic of cultural nationalist views of Canadian literary tradition, the focus of Survival was on establishing Canadian difference from Britain and the US, through an emphasis on literary tropes related to the country's white settler history-wilderness, map-making, colonial victimhood, and staying alive. Adopting a structuralist methodology, Atwood identified "key patterns" which "function like the field markings in bird-books: they will help you to distinguish this species from all others, Canadian literature from the other literatures with which it is often compared or confused" (13). Atwood made little claim for the originality of her thesis; instead she acknowledged her recent predecessors, Northrop Frye and Carl F. Klinck. (Indeed, Frye is one of the book's dedicatees.) It is to their work, then, that we must turn in order to explore the creation of a frame narrative of Canadian literature that has somehow implicitly survived until the present day.

Klinck's pioneering work, the multi-authored Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, was published in 1965, though the idea had originated in the mid-1950s in a conversation between Klinck and Frye-appropriately enough on an American college campus-with the aim of establishing Canadian literature as an academic discipline with its own scholarly and historical apparatus that would define the distinctiveness of Canada as a nation.2 That enterprise was symptomatic of 1950s post-war Canadian cultural initiatives, typified by the Massey Report (1951), followed by the establishment of a National Library (1952), the Canada Council (1957), and the beginning of McClelland and Stewart's New Canadian Library series in 1958, which made Canadian fiction available in cheap paperbacks for the first time. Conceived as a project of national significance ("If we do not launch out from a studied knowledge of ourselves and of our own ways, no one else will," writes Klinck in his Introduction, ix), Klinck's History was by no means ideologically neutral. Like the Massey Report, it confirmed traditional structures of power and authority, while recognizing Canada's bilingual, bicultural Anglo-French traditions, and that Canada was "a land settled by people of many different origins" (Klinck ix).3 Yet that recognition did not affect an ideological standpoint that was, as Richard Cavell has...

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